Jarring news always has a profound effect on my memory. I can clearly picture, for example, where I was and what I was doing when I learned the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. I can also recall, as if it happened a few weeks ago, standing in the street with my friends one summer afternoon in 1969 and talking about Neil Armstrong’s moon walk of the previous day.
More recently, just a month ago, in fact, I was in Germany attending the Hannover Fair when I heard about the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Although I couldn’t follow most of the local coverage, one headline broke through the language barrier like a bulldozer.
Hitler is killing children it said, according to my translator. It was a reference, I guess, to the perpetrators’ preoccupation with nazism, “dark” counterculture, and Hitler himself.
Whatever it was, the headline writer gets an A+ for getting attention, even that of an “illiterate” American in town for an industrial tradeshow. The sad commentary, however, is that the literal headline — children are killing children — probably wouldn’t have turned as many heads or sold as many newspapers. And that’s why I’m afraid these sorts of incidents are likely to continue.
Call it complacency. Call it self-absorption. Call it whatever you want. As a society, and as individuals, we are failing our kids. Columbine High is just the latest reminder.
I’d like to be optimistic about this. I’d like to be able to say with Vice President Al Gore, that this is an aberration, that “America is a good and decent place and our goodness is a light to all the world.” But I’m not stumping for office; I don’t have to deceive myself.
I believe that the same misguided leadership and thinking that got us here in the first place will prevail in the agendas, action plans, and intervention programs that emerge in the aftermath of the shooting. It will be a classic case of the blind leading the blind. Just wait and see.
In the meantime, though, there are, and will forever be, fifteen empty desks at the Colorado school. And in the homes of Littleton, fifteen empty chairs and fifteen empty beds. And fifteen empty families because of fifteen faces and fifteen voices that will never be seen or heard in this world again. And that is the biggest tragedy.
Years from now, when I look back on my trip to Germany, I’ll probably remember the huge fairgrounds, the scenic train rides, and the long stuffy flights. But I’ll also remember the kids we lost at Columbine High. I’ll remember that one wanted to be a Navy pilot, one just got back from Paris, one wanted to be a songwriter, one had been on a missionary trip to Mexico, one survived two heart surgeries, and one was killed after she said she believed in God.
And I’ll remember how helpless I felt. How in the end I could only scribble some names on a piece of paper, say a prayer, and go on. No it won’t bring back the victims in Littleton, but it might help the rest of us to keep these kids, and their families, in our thoughts.